- The Washington Times - Monday, February 1, 2010

President Obama’s pledge to lift the military’s ban on openly gay service members this year seems at best headed for extremely close votes in the House and Senate, according to Congress watchers.

The president’s proposal needs 218 votes in the House. A bill to repeal the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” has fewer than 190 co-sponsors.

What’s more, a number of Democrats representing conservative districts, led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, are set to buck the president and vote against repeal.

In the Senate, senators who support the ban could filibuster the 2011 defense authorization bill if it contains a repeal, giving opponents of the ban an uphill task of gathering 60 votes. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has announced that he opposes a change, allowing conservatives to rally around a war-hero senator.

Gay rights forces are also facing a ticking clock. If the GOP gains House and Senate seats in November, as national polls indicate, chances for repeal would diminish further next year.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a leading opponent of the ban, said last week: “We very much need a sense of urgency to get this done in 2010.”

Potential votes are being counted as Mr. Obama asks moderate and conservative Democrats — already nervous about an electorate that now favors Republicans in generic polling — to back a gay rights initiative in an election year.

Mr. Skelton said on C-SPAN on Jan. 15 that his full committee, unlike its Senate counterpart, will not hold a hearing on repeal, instead assigning the issue to a subcommittee. His opposition likely means that Democrats will have to muster a committee majority to insert language in the budget bill and send it to the floor.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, could refuse to allow a floor amendment vote to strike the language.

If that happens, there will be a vote to send the bill back to committee, Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, told The Washington Times.

“I would favor keeping the policy as it is. It is a system that is working,” said Mr. Wilson, the top Republican on the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, where Mr. Skelton has said a hearing will be held.

Mr. Wilson said that even if Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorses repeal, “I would still believe that at this time it is not the time to make a change as we are confronting two wars. I would be of the opinion we have a system that is working. … It has been very respectful of a person’s privacy.”

Democrats say they will try to revoke the ban through the yearly authorization bill, which oversees changes to Title 10, the federal code that contains the current law signed by President Clinton in 1993. The House and Senate Armed Services committees produce bills each year and reconcile them in conference.

The Servicemembers group backed that idea, saying, “We call on the president to repeal the [don’t ask, don’t tell] law in his defense budget currently being drafted, which is probably the only and best-moving bill where [the policy] can be killed this year.”

Mr. Clinton moved to lift the ban in his first month in office, but encountered heavy political opposition from members of both parties and outside pro-military groups. He signed the ban into law but approved a separate policy, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” to implement the ban. Under the policy, open homosexuality is prohibited because it is deemed harmful to unit morale and cohesion.

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